Like a Horse and Carriage


Last week, American Atheists’ Jamila Bey spoke at the yearly meeting of CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Committee. To give you some idea of CPAC’s tenor, this year’s highlights include:

  • Phil Robertson, patriarch of Duck Dynasty, said that “I believe Jesus came down from Heaven in flesh 2000 and 15-years ago. I believe he paid for all of my rotten sins, and I have a lot. But I’m not the only one. Every one of you seated in this audience has sinned…a lot.”
  • During a panel discussion, conservative talk show host Dana Loesch declared, “You don’t have to be a Christians to be affected by loss of religious liberty, because if one liberty is taken, more liberties will be taken,” she said. “If I’m not speaking up [while] you’re losing rights then what will happen to me when the day comes, if someone comes to me? What if you’re stoned for walking out in the street for being gay? I mean, come on, that’s where the conversation needs to go…”
  • And, more relevant to my purposes, Governor Scott Walker quipped, “You see, here in America there’s a reason why we celebrate the 4th of July and not April 15th because in America we celebrate our independence from the government, not our dependence on it.”

Bey spoke last week, saying in part:

Today I stand before you not just as a fellow conservative, I stand before you as a member of a growing Republican family that has inherited a new generation of potential leaders with millions of voters that we cannot afford to ignore. The law is: change or die. And to grow with our changing family, we must embrace this future to maintain our value systems, and, as Donald Rumsfeld put it best, we’ve gotta prepare for the unknown.

Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with American Atheists. More recently, I’ve become a very proud board member of this organization. And, through this course, I’ve seen many of our youth, many of our peers, who, while different in worldview, strongly uphold the values of our conservative family. These people are an essential component of our growing electorate. We ignore them to our peril.

Later, she clarified on her blog, “I’m a conservative on issues of economics, immigration, and a few others.  I’m socially liberal and I often agree with voices who exist on either/both sides of the political spectrum.”

People often say this, but is it possible?

My argument is this: One cannot be both socially liberal and fiscally conservative, at least not if one cares about the coherency of one’s beliefs. Social liberalism and fiscal conservatism are incompatible. Economics and social policies go hand-in-hand. Despite decades of Chicago-school ideology that has attempted to disembed fiscal policies from the stuff of everyday life—as if human beings were all numbers on a stock ticker—the truth is that the decisions that are made in regards to tax policy, spending, social safety nets, funding education and other social programs affect how everyday people live their lives in real and concrete ways.

Here is one example: According to a recent study by the Brookings Institute, poor women are 3 times as likely to have an unintended pregnancy than wealthy women. They are also 5 times more likely to give birth instead of terminating the pregnancy. This is because personal wealth influences access to contraception and abortion. In states with restrictive abortion laws, the problem is even more egregious. It hardly need be added that unintentional pregnancy can drive impoverished families further into poverty, or that such poverty is often generational.

Another data point, and one that may hit closer to home: 24% of gay and bi-sexual women are poor, compared to 19% of hetero women. LGBT people of color have even higher rates of poverty, while trans people are ten times as likely as cis people to have a household income lower than $10,000, and twice as likely to be unemployed. While some of this can be explained by the inability to access the shared benefits of marriage, not all of it can. Support of same-sex marriage as a liberal social policy isn’t enough. What about access to comprehensive healthcare, which is so important to all of us and especially to trans folks?  What about social programs that can stop cycles of poverty and help LGBTQ folks get back on their feet? What about “Big Government” interference in the market that prevents businesses from discriminating against LGBTQ consumers and employees? All of these things are necessary, but they cannot be managed with free market fiscal policy.

At a rally for homeless LGBT youth in New York City on June 14, 2010. ©2010 Ocean Morisset

A final piece of evidence:  Fiscal conservatives often wish to reduce the tax burden on the wealth (which is already at the lowest point it has been since the Great Depression) in the hopes that the 1% will plow this money back into the economy in the form of job creation and other spending. Yet, we have seen that this just isn’t so. According to David Atkens at Alternet:

“[The top 1%] control half of all the wealth, and the top 10% control almost 9/10ths of it. Corporate profits are at or near record highs, disproving the myth that the middle class must suffer due to competitive pressures. The Dow Jones index is threatening to burst past 17,000. Meanwhile, wages have stagnated since the Reagan era, even though productivity continues to increase… [However,] the rich aren’t investing almost half of their money (corporations aren’t doing much better, as their record profits sit largely idle avoiding taxation). 40% of the assets of the wealthy are sitting in deposits: the rich person’s equivalent of stuffing money into a mattress.”

In fact, staunch fiscal conservatives are more likely to prioritize reducing the budget to creating jobs, and cutting programs for the poor, even Social Security and Medicaid, rather than raising taxes.

Fiscal conservative policies create more inequality. This is so obvious that fiscal conservatives often no longer bother to deny it, but rather accept it as a product of a “well-functioning economy” (one must ask, ‘well-functioning’ for whom?) or a “fact of life.” Even if this were true—and I don’t believe it is—surely we can do better than 10% of people controlling 90% of the wealth of the country.

My point, once again, is that fiscal policy and social policy go hand-in-hand. One cannot seriously say that they support gay rights without supporting comprehensive healthcare and progressive tax policies. One cannot say they are feminist and pro-choice and fail to support social safety nets. One cannot say they support science education and yet want to cut funding for schools, or cede control of education over to states that consistently turn around and fund charter schools, vouchers and other foot-in-the-door policies that wedge religious instruction into publicly funded education.

Economic choices are social choices. They affect millions of people every day. To act otherwise is facile at best, self-deceptive at worst. Jamila Bey does not represent me. American Atheists does not represent me.

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  1. Excellent post. You make some super important points here that I hope give people pause in future conversations with the “I’m a social liberal but fiscal conservative” types.

  2. Other common fiscal conservative positions you might find less odious:
    -Deficit spending should be avoided
    -Debt should be reduced
    -Government should not attempt to compete with private enterprise

    It’s a demonstration of the decline of rational conservatism that these aren’t even on your radar. Imagine if the US Federal Government had 6.5% more revenue with no additional taxation. That’s what is being wasted on debt interest. It’s much worse here in Canada.

    The last item is probably the most controversial. I usually argue that while private enterprise is almost always more efficient, there are some sectors in which other priorities, like equity or regional development are more important than efficiency, and government has a role. The LCBO, the public monopoly liquor store in Ontario, Canada is one of the largest liquor purchasers in the world, and is credited with supporting a greater diversity of wineries than would otherwise exist. Also, health care (go Canada!).

    • I’m not convinced that your first 2 points are “fiscal conservative” in the sense used in the US. Democrats also agree that deficit spending should be avoided and debt should be reduced. The arguments are over how to go about avoiding those things in the best ways.

      • I think it’s a sign of how conservative everyone is these days. The Dems for the most part are the slightly-less-conservative party. The left didn’t give a fig about deficits and debts until the early 90’s in Canada or the US. I can’t really speak to the rest of the world, except it’s the left-wing parties in Spain and Greece which want to default on their debts, right?

    • Timmyson,

      I addressed this, at least in part, when I linked to the Pew Survey that found that most conservatives prioritize cutting the deficit over funding social programs. Needless to say, I disagree with this equation. Providing things like welfare benefits, unemployment benefits, Medicaid and Medicare are more important, in my view, than deficit reduction (and I always find it suspect when conservatives harp on about deficit reduction but are mute when it comes to war/defense spending.)

      I do not think the “debt should be reduced” is a particularly conservative point. I’ve never met a liberal who was like, “Fuck it; let’s rack up the debt and spend all the moneys!!1!” Mostly, when conservatives say “debt should be reduced” they are using coded language and mean something like, “We should cut spending on the things that I don’t like…” and, as I said, those things are usually social welfare projects, and sometimes education and public works as well. But liberals also talk a lot about reducing debt (in fact, wasn’t it Clinton who actually balanced the budget in his second term?) and also work towards it. They just prefer to cut things conservatives don’t want cut–again, “reduce debt” isn’t a partisan position.

      I disagree utterly with the maxim that government should not necessarily compete with private enterprise. Public schooling is a perfect example of a government “enterprise” that is constantly under siege from conservatives, and has suffered for decades as a result.

      • I’m not saying you’re wrong that “fiscal conservatism” is used as a smokescreen for cutting stuff a rich white guy doesn’t need. I’m just saying there is a larger doctrine that isn’t stupid, and that I think you’re taking a somewhat myopic view of history in ignoring it.

        It was a big deal that Clinton was all for paying down the debt, which was largely accumulated under much more “fiscally liberal” presidents (like Carter). I don’t know much about FDR though, so I can’t speak to Will’s further-historical point. However a quick look around the world shows much more fiscally liberal stances: countries which have recently and plan to default on debt rather than cut social programs or raise taxes.

        Maybe this is a big-C/small-C conservatism thing. The “fiscally conservative” philosophy which I largely internalized growing up was “pay for the social programs you need, but don’t do it with long-term deficits”. Deficit-spend as required to get through recessions or Keynes yourself out of trouble, but if a social program is important (and I’d point out that I didn’t even go as deep as education, I think socialized liquor is good for us), you need to be honest and tax people for it. We have higher taxes here in Canada by a goodly margin, and I still think they’re too low for the programs we ought to support.

        Definitions change though, and as lexicographically conservative as I am, I have to accept that maybe my understanding isn’t where everyone else’s is.

  3. It seems that way, but there are always unusual exceptions. For instance, I’m mostly a leftie, but I fear the “After 1300 years, voila! You become indigenous!” argument some lefties use. I also don’t get bogged down in language arguments, which I see as nothing more than a variant of the tone argument.

    • I am not sure what you you mean by this:

      “I fear the “After 1300 years, voila! You become indigenous!” argument some lefties use.”

      What does this have to do with my post?

      • I was mentioning how there’s a tendency to divide everyone into neat party lines.

        There’s a real tendency to use the term ‘indigenous’ incorrectly over on the Daily Kos I/P diaries.

  4. Jon, then perhaps you should take that complaint to the Daily Kos and other writers who’ve made that mistake, rather than complain here about things I actually did not do in my essay.

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